Women’s Christian Heritage: Challenges of an Alternative Story
By Mary T. Malone
Paper given at Saint Paul University in 2007
Abstract: Women’s own Christian history through the ages exists mostly in remnants and fragments, not enough to permit a comprehensive picture to emerge. On the contrary, a substantial amount of material prescribing how Christian women are to live bears no resemblance to women’s authentic experience and does not reflect their voices. Still, these fragments taken together provide a fascinating and deeply moving alternative version of Christianity. Particularly in the fourth, twelfth, thirteenth, sixteenth and more recent centuries, women combined faithfulness to the «tradition» with their own extraordinary ingenuity in creating their own space in theology, spirituality, and especially mysticism.
Introduction: All my life, it seems to me, I have been searching for the women of history, trying to find them and get some understanding of their lives, trying to hear their voices, trying to enter their worlds, trying to assemble the littered fragments that remain of lives that were almost wholly disvalued by their contemporaries, and almost completely disregarded today. The search is much more difficult in the Christian tradition because women were a “marked category”. They were the “other”, the obverse of what men, the normative human beings, represented. The women of Christian history have to be extricated from layers of patriarchal stereotyping, and centuries of asymmetrical typecasting, that have made it so perilous to try to assert the “historical truth of women’s lives”. But a new key has been presented in the corpus of writing by women that has survived condemnation and misrepresentation, and is now freely available on religious booklists.
During my time of journeying with these medieval women mystics, I have been deliberately and with exhilarated intentionality, and following their lead, reconfiguring my religious symbology. I have been cleansing my religious imagination of the symbology of what I have come to call “men’s church”. I have taken a leap sideways into their religious world and tried to appreciate the value and significance of their spiritual bequest to us. I had come to realize that everything in Christianity was articulated and symbolized in the male voice. It has always been men who theologised, liturgised, formulated doctrine and law, and created the “big words” that have carried the meaning of the Christian tradition, based on reflection on male experience: words like Incarnation, Trinity, God, Christ, Redemption, Grace, Holiness, Sin, Sanctity and so many others. This continues today. If one were to read the first encyclical on Christian Love by Pope Benedict XVI, one might easily get the impression that both the churches militant and triumphant were peopled only by men and Mother Teresa, (who alone among women is mentioned four times), and that all other women both historical and contemporary were wholly unnecessary to the understanding of Christian Love and the reality of the Christian church.